Amritpal Singh Controversy: Much Ado About Very Little
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A section of national news channels (in English and Hindi) are covering the events in Punjab using expressions like ‘Punjab is Boiling’, ‘Khalistanis are Creating Disturbances’, and so on. As a matter of fact, nothing is happening in Punjab so far. There has hardly been any reaction in the State to the Punjab Police operation to nab all activists of Waris Punjab De, or Heirs of Punjab, and its chief Amritpal Singh, except at two places where a few people tried to protest, which the police took care of.
All Punjabi TV channels are also covering the police action that started on 18 March as if nothing else matters. Undoubtedly, Amritpal Singh has drawn much attention in a short time, to the extent that one Punjabi channel even interviewed him. But despite all the noise, the press must remind viewers and readers why Amritpal Singh cannot replicate the actions of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The need of the hour is to provide all the occurrences since mid-2022 appropriate space in the media instead of making Amritpal Singh and his organisation a national concern.
Waris Punjab De was established by the late actor Deep Sidhu, who came into the limelight on 26 January 2021 during the farmers’ agitation near Delhi when he led a group of associates to the Red Fort and hoisted the Khalsa flag. He set up the organisation in September 2021, along with another actor, Daljit Kalsi. Before the Republic Day episode, he was not involved in the farm agitation. But immediately after it, people discovered his connection with film star and Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Sunny Deol. Subsequently, it was rumoured that Sidhu was a BJP man trying to sabotage the farmers’ struggle. In February 2022, after Sidhu died in a road accident while travelling to Punjab from Delhi, there were rumours about a conspiracy behind the accident.
Amritpal Singh became Sidhu’s successor to Waris Punjab De but was hardly known in Punjab. The organisation did not have a significant standing in the State either. Therefore, the question of Sidhu’s successor was ignored in Punjab. Interestingly, after he took over, Amritpal’s name began circulating on social media with references to Sidhu’s “unfinished task”, which was never clearly articulated except that before he died, he had supported Simranjit Singh Mann, head of the Akali Dal (Amritsar).
Nobody knew of Amritpal Singh until September 2021 when he visited Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s native village, Rode. Here, some turban-tying ritual was performed, and the result was to create a Bhindranwale lookalike. At the symbolic level, the message was clear, but the problem is that the times have changed. However, there was one coincidence that allowed a parallel to be drawn between Bhindranwale’s time and the present. Bhindranwale emerged on the scene when the Congress party was comprehensively defeated in 1977, after which the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) came to power in Punjab while the Janata Party ruled at the Centre. In 2022, the Aam Adami Party (AAP) came to power in Punjab after comprehensively defeating the SAD and the Congress party.
Two more events occurred, one causally following the other, indicating that things were changing for the AAP in Punjab. First was the murder of Punjab’s most popular singer, Sidhu Moosewala, on 29 May 2022. The second was in the last week of June 2022, when Simranjit Singh Mann won the parliamentary by-election to the Sangrur Lok Sabha constituency. Mann’s victory resulted from many factors, but it was mainly attributed to two: Sidhu’s support for Mann before his death and Moosewala’s murder, which was believed to be a result of the withdrawal of his security by Punjab’s newly-elected AAP government. Although Mann did not win comprehensively, getting a margin of under 6,000 votes, the general impression was that AAP was to blame. Also, during that election campaign, the SAD took up the issue of Bandi Singhs or Sikh prisoners.
It is against these prevailing conditions that Amritpal Singh was noticed more seriously by the Sikh masses. A parallel trajectory of events unfolded in the second half of last year, which indicated a rising currency for communal issues. On 31 August 2022, masked men raising pro-Khalistan slogans vandalised a church and burnt the pastor’s car in the Tarn Taran district. The Punjab government was quick to react and take control of the situation. The issue of conversion to Christianity died quickly, mainly because people who had converted were from among the lowest castes. However, Amritpal Singh launched a discourse against Christianity, and in reaction, in October 2022, Christians protested against his remarks. His jibes against Christianity led certain sections to believe that Amritpal Singh was a creation of the BJP. The broader context was provided by the understanding that the BJP plans to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha election in Punjab without any alliance partner.
On 24 February this year, Amritpal Singh and his supporters attacked the Ajnala Police Station to free his comrades from police lock-up. Since the crowd also carried the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib, the police did not retaliate. As a result, some police personnel suffered injuries. No FIR was registered against Amritpal Singh or his associates, which led to the perception that the Punjab government was not acting decisively against him and Waris Punjab De. A few days later, Amritpal said that if the party at the Centre was making India into a Hindu Rashtra, then his demand for Khalistan was legitimate. He warned the government against taking action and reminded it of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
This much would have been enough for any political dispensation to take action, but the Punjab government took some time to work out a strategy. It also approached the central government and finally took action on 18 March, which continues as we speak. Although Amritpal Singh is still absconding, most of his associates have been arrested, and some have been booked under the National Security Act.
One, Amritpal Singh does not have any following of a religious kind. Bhindranwale was trained in Sikh religious teachings and Gurbani at the Damdami Taksal, Chowk Mehta. When he took over as the head of the Taksal, his predecessor already had a large following. Secondly, Bhindranwale could articulate Sikh religious issues and deliver sermons to his followers. He entered the political scene with a powerful package of grievances held by the Sikhs against the central government. Thirdly, he entered the Golden Temple in Amritsar in the last phase of his struggle for what he believed was right for the Sikhs. In strong contrast, Amritpal Singh has been focusing on issues secondary to the Sikh faith. For example, in Jalandhar, he and his associates vandalised a small cigarette shop and removed and burnt benches installed for the elderly and those suffering from arthritis at a Gurdwara, which did not please everybody. Although he has tried to look like Bhindranwale, it is impossible for him to carry the people along.
However, it is true Amritpal Singh was working hard to spread his own brand of Sikhism with an element of separatism. He had been travelling around the villages of Punjab with his associates. They would stay in a village for some days and then move on. (At some point, he also married a woman from England.) His earlier popularity on social media and the way some in the Sikh diaspora supported him have lent great strength to the government’s claim that he was receiving money from foreign countries. Sooner or later, he will be arrested, and there he will remain for a long time.
The author was a professor of sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. The views are personal.
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